Attacks on Albinos in Tanzania: Why is ‘Investigation’ Being Left to the Press?

31 Jan

I have spent many months over the last few years trying to understand what is really going on in Tanzania surrounding attacks on persons with albinism but I have run out of time and money to take it any further. However, I think that after more than seven years of these attacks it is imperative that we go beyond journalistic speculation and carry out proper investigations into the persecution, attacks, murders, and even the media coverage itself. It is disgraceful that these attacks continue, with little more than a bit of press frenzy every time another attack occurs. Many media articles are effectively putting a price on the head of every person with albinism, with their speculation and half baked ‘research’. Below is an abstract of some preliminary research, up to 2013, that I would be happy to share with anyone interested in taking this further.

BACKGROUND

Before April 2006, superstitions about persons with albinism (PWA) were widely reported and many were subjected to prejudice and persecution, in Tanzania and elsewhere. But following an attack on a man with albinism in 2006 whose body was dismembered, a spate of attacks began in 2007 and continued until 2013, involving more than one hundred victims, about 35 of whom were murdered (although the media claim the number was over 70). The media covered these attacks assiduously in 2008 and 2009 but coverage plummeted in the following three years. Secondary literature includes reports by UN bodies and international NGOs, and these are found to depend to a large extent on earlier media reports, or on the same sources of information as those media reports.

METHODS

Using Google.com, a series of searches for the terms ‘albino’ and ‘Tanzania’ were carried out on a limited set of domain names, one by one, and a date search was used to ensure that articles from earlier years were also identified, resulting in a corpus of over 90 articles.

FINDINGS

Data was tabulated from the articles and described in narrative, including mentions of PWAs that predate attacks. Appendix I lists the full data: mentions of ‘witchcraft’ (or similar), a ‘trade’ in body parts, possible reasons for using body parts and potions made from them (such as wealth), and suggestions about who the perpetrators may have been. Very early on, the media identifies a pattern whereby ‘witchdoctors’ (or similar) engage paid middlemen to attack PWAs for their body parts; these would be used for ‘spells’ and ‘potions’ that would bestow some benefit, almost always wealth. The witchdoctors were said to be responding to a demand for these services from wealthy and powerful people, and that there was a ‘lucrative trade’ in body parts. Although numerous articles exhibit some or all aspects of this pattern it is unclear to what extent media accounts resemble what was happening on the ground, or to what extent what was happening on the ground was being influenced by the media.

DISCUSSION

It is concluded that the corpus of media coverage of attacks on PWAs from this period consists of sets of ‘received views’, exaggerated or purely imagined phenomena on which each story depends, to a greater or lesser extent; received views relate to witchcraft, the ‘trade in body parts’ and a whole array of perpetrators, while most incidents involving attacks on PWAs have never been adequately documented, and only a small number of people have been convicted of any offences.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The media needs to make it quite clear that there is, in fact, no evidence for the existence of a ‘lucrative trade’ in body parts, that if people try to make money this way they will fail because there are not enough ‘clients’ to buy body parts or ‘potions’ made from body parts in order to gain wealth or power, if there are any at all, and that the role played by witchcraft and other related phenomena is not at all clear, certainly not clear enough to attribute to it the kind of causality that the media claims; in addition to the failure to identify perpetrators, media coverage may have increased the risks that persons with albinism face, and attacks continue; even those suspected of being involved may have been subjected to persecution as a result of poorly researched media coverage.

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